In yet another desperate attempt to get my English-speaking mouth to form sounds it isn’t capable of making, I started my Rosetta Stone Chinese lessons again. I studied Chinese for two quarters in college and did several months of Rosetta Stone last summer, but I’ve since slacked off. It sounds so easy in principle — “I will do a couple lessons a day,” I tell myself. “And then I will be fluent in Chinese.” Well, it turns out it is not that easy.
My first problem are the tones. Mandarin Chinese has four tones, meaning “ma” said with four different intonations means four different words, probably more. To the non-Chinese speaker, the tones are hard to distinguish. So I’ve got that problem. The other problem is the sounds themselves. Pinyin, the romanization of the Chinese characters, makes the words a little easier to distinguish, but there are still sounds in Chinese that we can’t spell with 26 letters. For example, the pinyin “he” is not pronounced like the English third person masculine singular pronoun, but rather like “huhhhhh,” like the noise you make when you lift a really heavy box.
My final problem lies with Rosetta Stone itself. The system of teaching is nice, but I can’t understand why they choose to teach words and phrases in the order that they do. So far I have learned how to say “The horse is running,” “I am wearing a suit but not a tie” and “This is a cat.” When am I ever going to use any of those phrases in China? I would guess that most people who are learning a foreign language hope to one day travel to where that language is spoken. With that in mind, I propose Rosetta Stone offer a new “emergency language” lesson. For China, at least, important phrases would include, “Where is the bathroom?” “Do you have a non-squat toilet?” and “May I have a fork instead of chopsticks?” There could also be a lesson about bargaining, in which it could teach you how to say, “That model of the Bird’s Nest is certainly not made of solid gold like you claim, and is worth 50 yuan at best, not 500.” Those kind of phrases are useful in China, none of this “The man and woman are eating sandwiches outside,” crap. Who eats sandwiches outside in China, anyway? “The man and woman are eating cheap noodles from a questionable cart outside,” would be more realistic.
I guess my final problem lies with myself. I can understand when the waitress asks what I want to drink and know how to respond with “bottled water,” but I’m always afraid I will use the incorrect tone and it will come out “monkey blood” or whatever “ping sui” with the wrong tone means. I need to be confident in my rudimentary Chinese. Until I can practice in China for real, I’ll be sitting here telling my computer about the boy eating the apple and the woman running outside.